By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009
DeShawn Stevenson returned to Cleveland last week and got an instant reminder that there will always be one city in the United States that reviles him. When the Washington Wizards' private plane landed at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the runway marshal warmly greeted each member of the team until he spotted the scraggly bearded Stevenson.
"I hate you," Stevenson recalls the airport employee telling him, to which Stevenson responded with an equally incensed retort. "I won't cuss, but I said something to him," Stevenson said.
Stevenson has become one of the most hated athletes in Cleveland ever since he dared to call reigning league MVP LeBron James "overrated" nearly two years ago. Fans there haven't forgotten. He was booed after he hit both of his three-pointers in the Wizards' 109-104 exhibition win against the Cavaliers, gleefully waving his hand in front of his face to rile the fans even more.
"It's crazy how it's still going on," Stevenson said of his feud with the Cavaliers and their fans. "Even if I'm in a different jersey, it's still going to have that effect and I'm going to bring that rivalry somewhere else, because this team don't like me."
Caron Butler can vouch for the incident at the airport. "Obviously, it ain't dead," Butler said of the rivalry, shaking his head.
Stevenson is accustomed to a poor reception in Cleveland, but last season, he had to deal with harsh criticism from his own fans. He shot a career-low 31.2 percent and was limited to just 32 games before succumbing to a back injury that resulted in season-ending surgery in March. "Everything is what have you done for me lately, right?" said Stevenson, who averaged just 6.6 points last season, after averaging 11.2 and 82 games in each of his first two seasons in Washington.
The Wizards tried to include Stevenson in their trade with Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, according to multiple league sources. But he stayed on the team, left to battle for the starting shooting guard spot he surrendered last season.
Coach Flip Saunders has been tinkering with the position throughout the preseason, using a different starter in each of the first five exhibition games, and has yet to make a decision. Stevenson said he isn't concerned with his role, so long as the Wizards win, and spent more time focused on taking better care of his body.
It started this summer, with him working out in Vancouver, B.C., with Alex McKechnie, the renowned physical trainer and Los Angeles Lakers' athletic performance coordinator. Then, taking the advice of Drew Cleary, the Wizards' strength and conditioning coach, Stevenson said he has adapted a "no animal diet" since training camp. Going vegetarian has resulted in him losing 12 pounds. Stevenson said he is down to 217 pounds after weighing 250 at the start of training camp last season.
Stevenson said he believes that his excess weight contributed to a nagging knee injury, which forced him to overcompensate and later caused his back to give out. "That's what hurt me last year. That's what everybody is telling me," Stevenson said. "I kept my weight down. My knees all right, my back's all right. I feel stronger, not tired. I'm kind of shocked that I'm out there and my back feels good."
The pain in his back was so bad, Stevenson said, that it hurt him to lower his chin or drive his car without feeling a twinge. Noted for his perimeter defense, Stevenson also was unable to get down in his defensive stance and hop back up. That hasn't been a problem for Stevenson through the preseason.
Last week against Detroit, Pistons guard Ben Gordon hit a three-pointer in the first quarter and Saunders inserted Stevenson. Gordon didn't make a field goal the rest of the half. Saunders had seen enough. "DeShawn was great," Saunders said. "He's doing a lot of the dirty work. It hasn't been decided what's going to happen with that [shooting guard] spot, but he's been impressive as far as what he's done. He's a guy who is definitely going to have a big role as far as what we're trying to do."
Stevenson said he embraces the role as designated defender. "I've always been able to play defense. I'm going out there and doing the things that Flip always talks to me about that he needs," Stevenson said. "That's going to be my role for this year. I might start. I might come off the bench. I might guard the best player. I'm just trying to do things to get this team back to the playoffs."
Wizards Notes: Center Brendan Haywood (sprained right ankle) expects to return for Monday's game in Atlanta after missing the past two games. . . . Javaris Crittenton (double bone bruise and tendon strain) remains sidelined after an MRI on Friday revealed that he still had swelling in two of three ligaments in his left foot. . . . Antawn Jamison (right shoulder) visited practice on Saturday and worked out on the treadmill.